Is Bahrain truly committed to change?

“Britain is back east of Suez,” British foreign secretary Boris Johnson boldly proclaimed during a speech in Bahrain in 2016.

Mr Johnson was referring to Great Britain’s growing influence in the kingdom set in the Arabian Gulf, which includes a brand new naval base and enhanced ties between the two.

The UK last year confirmed it would contribute a further £2m to Bahrain – one of its former protectorates – to be put towards enhanced justice, security and stability reforms.

In a sign of the close ties between the two countries, Bahrain has already agreed to foot the bulk of the bill for the new Mina Salman naval support facility, with Britain contributing a mere £9m over three years.

Not only is this a major move as the UK seeks to broaden its sphere of influence in the Middle East, but it also represents a significant step in the type of role Britain hopes to play in a post-Brexit world.

But question marks do remain, particularly over the close links with Bahrain – a state which attracts scrutiny for its alleged human rights record.

The London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights & Democracy (BIRD) claims that the UK has become “an unconditional ally” of the kingdom, yet also believes enquiries into Bahrain’s human rights record have “declined precipitously” since the construction of the naval base was agreed.

However, there are signs that the kingdom is keen to alter its image, if not genuinely improve the situation on the ground. It started 17 years ago almost to the day with the National Action Charter of Bahrain.

Described by King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa as a “new breakthrough in the history of Bahrain”, it was designed to define the political, social and economic dimensions of the country, while also allowing women the right to vote and run in parliamentary and municipal elections.

It was followed a year later with the promulgation of a new constitution that established a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain, called for equality for all citizens regardless of religious affiliations.

There is also now an independent Ombudsman office – the first of its kind in the Middle East.

Its aim is to protect investigative integrity and independence, while its work has been recognised by 46 member states at the UN Human Rights Council.

The number of complaints it receives each year continues to rise, with 908 in 2014/15 – a 375 per cent increase from the previous year.

There was a nine per cent rise to 992 in 2015/16, while 2016/17 saw a climb of 164 to 1,156.

The impact of the ombudsman service is hard to quantify and the increasing numbers of complaints are a cause for concern, but the increased transparency is being welcomed as a positive step.

Despite being well-known for its wealth, huge strides are also being made to help those in need.

Food subsidies have shot up from $25m in 2004 to $135m in 2013, with $270 million in financial support also being handed out to low income families.

On average, $25m is spent annually on grants to the disabled.

A National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking has also been established to combat the practice, while there have also been increased rights for domestic workers.

There are undoubtedly improvements still to be made. The force deployed by the government to quell the 2011 uprising and subsequent protests did shock many in the West, while Bahrain’s human rights record continues to come under scrutiny.

The recent jailing of Nabeel Rajab, a leading figure in the 2011 protests, for accusing the state of torture and criticising Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen is the latest episode to attract widespread condemnation.

But what is clear is that significant strides are being made by the kingdom to introduce social reform and improve people’s rights and welfare, particularly when compared to other Arabian Gulf states.

Progress of this kind is often slow but, in Bahrain’s case at least, it is tangible.

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